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For youths' sake, build on civil rights progress

June 06, 2004|Bill Cosby | Entertainer Bill Cosby's most recent book is "Letters to the Next President: What We Can Do About the Real Crisis in Public Education."

I'm looking at a gentleman, a black man in his 80s, and he's sitting in a chair outside on a porch in the neighborhood. Now, this man was very important in the civil rights movement, extremely intelligent and well educated. I'm not sure whether or not he knows, at this moment, what is going on in the world.

But then he looks at me and smiles. I hold his hand. I smile back at him. Then he goes away again. I don't know where he's gone, but I do know that this beautiful, beautiful man and his beautiful wife did historically important work for us in the '50s.

Twenty years ago, after his wife's death, when he was still fully aware of the world around him, we talked about things.

"What's going on?" he asked. "I don't understand." He was talking about progress.

It seems that as he grew older, he became more dissatisfied and disappointed about the lack of educational achievements of many black youths.

What can the future hold for us with a 50% high school dropout rate in many urban areas and with a 60% illiteracy rate among inmates and a prison population that's 45% black?

I recently tried to address these issues in a speech at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. During my remarks in Washington, I made reference to parents whose children had been arrested. And I wondered aloud: "Where were you when he was 2? Where were you when he was 12? Where were you when he was 18, and how come you didn't know that he had a pistol?"

Now those are important questions, even if they make people angry. Too often, the answer to them -- from across the United States, regardless of race, color or creed -- is: "I can't do nothin' with him." Teenage girls become unwed mothers while males are allowed to walk away without taking any responsibility.

The incarceration rate of our youth is accelerating with devastating consequences for our families and neighborhoods. Children are being killed by stray bullets in territorial gang and drug wars. Many of us feel shocked and helpless. We don't need to feel passive.

Most of these ills stem from several factors, but an important one is the lack of education of too many of our young people. Studies show a correlation between inadequate schooling and a wide range of distressing outcomes, including early death, a propensity toward violence and substance abuse. Given the high dropout rate at many urban high schools, it is easy to understand why the social fabric has become tattered.

Our children are telling us something. Why are we not listening and paying attention to the messages?

Parent power! Proper education has to begin at home. We must demand that our youth have an understanding of spoken and written English, math and sciences. We must transform our communities with a renewed commitment to our children, and that means parents must show that they value education. We don't need another federal commission to study the problem. Scholars such as W.E.B. Dubois and John Hope Franklin and activists such as Dorothy I. Height have already written eloquently on the subject. What we need now is parents sitting down with children, overseeing homework, sending children off to school in the morning well fed, clothed, rested and ready to learn.

Some media people or government people, who are already ethnically insensitive, cannot hurt us if we begin to address and act on what is already epidemic. We will then be empowered.

Change can only be set in motion when families and leaders get together and acknowledge that a problem exists. Where are the standards that tell a child: "Stop! There is hope." This has to happen in the home. It reverts back to parenting.

Parent power! Guaranteed to induce self-empowerment. Parents, including foster parents, stepparents, older sisters and brothers, neighbors and, sometimes, the younger siblings. It starts and finishes in the home. That's the one place I know where children can find respect, guidance and love. We need to be one big extended family, once again as expressed in the anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

That gentleman, my friend who did so much to change the world, did his part. Now it's up to families to finish his work.

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